Chinese Conflict – Huntsman’s J-20 Dilemma

Former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman on how he helped defuse a potentially devastating conflict.

China business conflict can get out of hand quickly. Westerners with experience negotiating in China know that conflict resolution may be not be feasible – but avoiding conflict is possible if handled diplomatically.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to hear former US Ambassador Jon Huntsman speak at the National Committee of US China Relations  in NY. He related how he helped to avoid what could have been an incredibly bitter and dangerous conflict at the highest levels.

In January 2011, US Secretary of Defense visited China on a diplomatic mission to ease tension between the US and the PRC. Before meeting with President Hu Jintao (who, incidentally, was to visit Washington one week later), the PLA conducted the first test flight of its stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

According to Huntsman, Sec. Gates took the test as a strong show of disrespect towards him and an act of belligerence towards the US. His first impulse was to call off the meetings and return home. This would have been a major setback for relations between the two nations — and cast a pall over Hu Jintao’s first state visit to the US.

Huntsman persuaded Gates to stay on and engage with the leaders he had come to see. The Sec of Defense then asked him, “Well how should I handle the matter of the test flight?” The Ambassador responded, “Ask Hu Jintao how to best proceed.”

During his meeting with Hu, Gates asked, “President Hu – A J20 flew today. Was this directed at me or the United States? What can I tell the US press corps when they ask me?” According the former Ambassador, there was a flurry of conversation down the line of PRC officials and advisors until it became clear that this was the first news of the test flight that many -if not all – the Chinese civilians in the room had heard. The response that Hu Jintao ultimately delivered was, “Tell them it was a scientific research experiment.” The meetings continued, and President Hu’s trip to the US went off without a hitch – or mention of the test flight.

Huntsman’s solution to the J-20 incident was simple, considered, and supremely diplomatic. It’s a perfect lesson in how to defuse tensions without giving up ground. It was non-confrontational, but deftly placed the onus on the Chinese side. Many American business people would consider this kind of maneuver too passive-aggressive for their taste, but in China that is often the only way. Americans respect direct, straight-shooting partners who air their of grievances and work out differences with brutal honesty. Chinese don’t. Huntsman understood that once the Chinese side feels insulted or that they have lost face it undermines the relationship and makes further negotiation impossible.

Stay engaged and learn as much as you can about the situation. The situation may have a logical explanation, or the Chinese side may have interpreted things differently. Chinese partnerships require painstaking effort to build — but can be shattered in an instant.

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